Go On A Day Tour Of These Off-The-Beaten-Track Laguna Towns
This summer, explore the culinary and fashion delights of Liliw, the underground cemetery of Nagcarlan, and the cultural treasures of Majayjay and Luisiana
The weather is hot in April, but there is a nice little nip in the air when approaching the southern towns of Nagcarlan, Liliw, Majayjay, and Luisiana. The high altitude, the gurgling streams tumbling around the mountain, and the perpetual moistness of a dense primordial forest keep this part of Laguna several degrees cooler than other towns.
You can begin the slow and unhurried ride to this quiet side of Laguna in San Pablo City where jeepneys await until they are swollen with all sorts of produce, pasalubong, and passengers. During the ride, all you can do is to enjoy the endless views of towering greens and eavesdrop on random conversations.
First stop: Above and below Nagcarlan
Alight at the first town on the itinerary, Nagcarlan. Start with a walking tour along its narrow and sloping streets. Notice the three-level houses with arched windows and distinct European influences erected on very small lot sizes. According to folk tradition, an extravagant display of wealth was frowned upon, so much so that the rich families in this town extended their houses vertically rather than horizontally.
Marvel at the Nagcarlan Church, with its striated facade of alternating bands of brick and stone over Baroque and Moorish curlicues. Being inside the church is a horror vacuii experience, with the never-ending patterns of its ceramic and machuca tiles.
This kind of excess ornamentation is repeated in the town’s famous Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery. Standing on a mound is the impressive brick arch, elaborate grill works, and the circular perimeter wall decorated with Baroque scrolls of the old, Spanish cemetery, which dates back to 1845. Once you enter the compound, the brick path terminates in the mortuary chapel, where funeral rites reserved only for Catholic priests and the town’s elite was once held.
To the right of the chapel is a flight of adobe stairs that leads to the Underground Cemetery. Since the entire cemetery—including the crypts—was converted into a museum, the remains were removed and only empty niches fill the shadowed walls. There are patches of blue-and-white ceramic and terracotta tiles that make up the flooring and there is a faded but elaborate fresco on the ceiling. In 1897, the planning of the truce in Biak-na-Bato was held in this underground chamber.
Second stop: Shop ’til you drop in Liliw
Next stop is the town of Liliw that was made popular by its brick church, uraro biscuits, and sandal-makers. Baroque in architecture, its church has a brick facade and imposing bell tower topped by overgrowth. The narrow street leading to the church of San Juan Bautista is lined with stores selling tsinelas (sandals) fashioned from leather and abaca.
While sandal making in Liliw boomed in the 1980s, manufacturers maintained small-scale operation in their homes to avoid mass production and preserve the high quality of their handmade products. Displayed in every storefront is a pair of giant slippers, a glaring statement that Liliw is the country’s tsinelas capital.
Getting hungry in Liliw in no problem because there is Arabela (above), an Italian restaurant set in the silong of what used to be a shoe factory.
Liliw is also famous for its uraro cookies. Uraro is made of pure arrowroot flour, pork lard from native pigs, yolks from ducks’ eggs, sugar, and carabao’s milk. Go to the old bakeries in Liliw to observe how the arrowroot dough is kneaded by hand, flattened to form small oblongs, and embossed with a distinct floral design. They are baked in a pre-war brick pugon that is fired by dried coconut husks.
Aside from freshly baked uraro cookies, other delicacies are sold in alleys such as tiny crabs (talangka), snails (kuhol-above), sweet yams (kamote), and pako or fiddlehead fern (below) that grow abundantly in the mountain streams.
Dealers of pako give instructions on how to make them into a refreshing salad by mixing fresh pako with chopped tomatoes, onion, salted eggs, kesong puti, and homemade vinaigrette.
Third stop: Get a natural high in Majayjay
Traditionally, Majayjay had a reputation for being far and secluded. In the olden days, they said that travelers to this part sigh while catching their breaths en route (hay… hay.. Majayjay). Not only is Majajay far, this mountain town is located higher up than the previous towns. Here, colonial treasures coupled with the town’s folk history are revealed at every turn. Inside the centuries-old Saint Gregory The Great Parish Church is a huge baptismal font, possibly used by the early friars to convert the Filipinos to Christianity in order to increase the labor force to build this massive church.
There is a 19th-century bridge known as Puente de Capricho. It infamously earned its name as the “bridge of whims” due the building duties forced on the townsfolk by friar Vicente de Moral. It is said that those who refused to participate in bridge building were beaten with a whip on the buttocks, which explains why local referred to this unfinished structure as tulay pigue.
To visit this controversial bridge, one must hike down a dumpsite at the edge of the street then walk through a narrow bamboo bridge to a stone arch that crosses a deep ravine. This is the same unfinished bridge that appeared in these two famous films: Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Fourth stop: Basket-weavers of Luisiana
Take a connecting jeepney ride from Majayjay to the town of Luisiana. Luisiana was part of Majayjay but due to the building duties imposed by the church, the couple Don Luis Bernardo and Doña Ana led the breakaway to establish a new town that was named in their honor: Luis y Ana.
The mountain road to Luisiana is flanked with thick vegetation and random groves of giant pandan trees. This pandan tree is different from the screwpine used for cooking rice. Pandan trees sprout like mushrooms in Luisiana, that is why basket-making and weaving became the traditional livelihood in this town. Pandan was so abundant, that according to folk history that the plant’s sharp-bladed leaves discouraged the Spaniards from reaching this mountain town.
This manual labor consists of harvesting the pandan, pressing, drying, and weaving. There is a hundred year-old pandan press locally called the iluhan. This simple machine is made from a massive log that is weighed down by slabs of rock tied around it. The pandan leaves are pressed in between the log and its cradle; the log is then rocked back and forth until the leaves are drained of moisture.Under the shade of front yards and in service kitchens of homes, groups of womenfolk weave the smoothened pandan leaves into traditional hats, flexible tampipi, and sturdy bayong.
Popular summer destinations are usually too crowded (Baguio), too commercialized (Tagaytay) or possibly closed to tourists (Boracay). This off-the-beaten-track to Laguna towns that are situated on the foothills of mystical Mount Banahaw can be the next best thing for a cool and charming escape.
To get to the first stop (Nagcarlan) from Manila: From Cubao behind Mang Inasal near the overpass, take the HM Bus to Sta. Cruz, Laguna (or via Alabang, take the Sta. Cruz bus at the South Station of Alabang). When you get to the Sta. Cruz terminal, ride the jeepney with the “Liliw-Nagcarlan” signboard.
Glenn Martinez is a heritage enthusiast and a travel blogger. Follow him on his artistic and cultural adventures in his blog Traveler on Foot.
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